Inclusive Learning with Embedded Digital Bioskills

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Xyanthine Parillon, Ph.D., Ed.D.
Faculty Lecturer
University of Houston-Downtown
Dr. Stephanie August
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Stephanie E. August, Ph.D.
Independent Consultant
Engineering Education

Embed Digital Bioskills as an Educational Approach to Unlock Inclusive Learning in Undergraduate Education

Many authentic data sets and tools are readily available online for no or low-cost. The use of digital platforms can provide valuable experiences to students without the expensive equipment that historic or traditional labs require. Student centered and collaborative approaches to learning can empower STEM talent while engaging in active learning to enhance science literacy and promote deep understanding for STEM learners.11, 13, 26, 30 Embedding Digital Bioskills within these approaches provides a strategy for integrating technology into the student experience. Virtual experiences improve self-efficacy and strengthen identification with the science community similar to in-person engagement in undergraduate research experiences.10 The utilization of virtual and digital learning environments provides a synergistic approach, which in turn creates supportive learning environments which helps remove barriers to success.28 We can now, more than ever, employ digital delivery and collaboration as active learning strategies to conceptualize learning in a manner that is accessible for all.

Perspectives of inclusion encompass access for all, engagement of all individuals, and even assessment strategies.15, 17, 18 Here inclusive learning is defined as equal access to Digital Bioskills for all students. Bioskills encompass analytical modeling, participating in the scientific process, quantitative analysis, and interdisciplinary science.2 The integration of Bioskills with digital technologies creates an interface for students to engage in inclusive learning and build Bioskills. Utilizing strategies to embed Digital Bioskills in undergraduate education addresses the U.S. National Science Foundation 2022-2026 Strategic Plan.27 This strategic plan calls us to empower STEM talent to participate in creating new knowledge for solutions that benefit society by removing barriers to participation (NSF, 2022). To help fulfill the strategic plan, we can include free accessible Digital Bioskills in the learning process removing barriers to participation and creating valuable learning environments that are accessible to all while involving students in the advancement of science.

This discussion demonstrates how we can employ a four-part strategy for achieving success in this endeavor. First, immersing our students in science Bioskill acquisition can provide them an opportunity for authentic learning. Second, out students can learn quantitative analysis using readily available, open source, cloud-based tools. Third, documenting student skill acquisition along the way can confirm student knowledge and experience for potential employers. Fourth, fundamental to achieving success is educator awareness of the tools and best practices that can pave the way toward creating inclusive undergraduate ecosystems.

Immerse All Undergraduates in the Process of Science Bioskill Acquisition with Digital Experiential Learning

Digital experiential learning with free tools engages all students by immersing them in the interdisciplinary nature of science. BioRad Academy and the National Research Mentoring Network (NRMN) (Resource List 1) provide certificates that reflect learner-centered education and positively impact STEM learning.8 Project-based learning has a positive impact on undergraduate education.29 With the current increase in accessible data, we are able to develop project-based experiences using curated data, extending the scope of undergraduate learning experiences. To engage students in the process of science for lab projects, I deliver protocols in lab courses with Benchling, a collaborative bioscience platform. I then ask students to document data collection and observations on iPads or tablets using Notability or GoodNotes as digital notebooks.

Signaling digital bioskills. Image created with BioRender.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) has described 2023 as the year of Open Science.7 Due to new regulations required by updated federal grant submission guidelines, a new culture of conducting science combined with data management and sharing has emerged.14 As a result, new models to teach with curated data from specific scientific disciplines are exposed. Data repositories, that can pull from existing research, are openly accessible, and curated data sets are now available to support teaching and learning. For example, Edwards describes multiple platforms to acquire, analyze, and visualize microbial genomic data.5 Multiple repositories exist for different STEM disciplines (Resource List 1). In my Immunology course, I use Immport to access flow cytometry data to model how to upload and analyze files in freely accessible Flowjo software, demonstrate quantitative analysis. In my Human Anatomy lecture, I use a student-centered approach in transcriptomics.13 Students use National Center for Biotechnology Information, NCBI, to observe RNA sequencing data (RNA-seq) from humans to determine expression in tissues of conditions they are interested in. These Digital Bioskill incorporations are valuable because all students can access them anytime, without fees, and on any digital device. A student’s resulting synthesis becomes a reflective topic I can use to write strong letters of recommendation for graduate and professional schools.

There is an increase in genomics analysis in the health curriculum and how health data will be analyzed, shared and protected.9 The All of Us Platform is becoming an important focus related to public health careers linking genomic data to social determinants of health.5 The data browser is free to the public and we can now search for health conditions and variables with a NIH supported platform and teach statistics and use data to teach data visualization concepts to improve student learning of quantitative analysis and the process of science Bioskills in an equitable way that engages all students due to open access. I have used the cloud-based All of Us Data Browser, free to the public, to engage students regarding prevalence of autoimmunity.

We can assess undergraduate student digital learning with learning analytics. I gather analytics regarding the level of student access to determine how inclusion is occurring by creating hyperlinks to digital platforms with Bitly or QR codes. Bitly and QR Codegenerator can report numbers of engagement, the types of devices students use most, and when they access content. This informs the learning process as indicators of how inclusive digitally linked platforms are. Based on engagement, the need for greater use of technology can be revealed, which can inform grant proposals for course redesign projects.

Use Cloud-Based Computing for Data Analysis, Data Sharing, and Analytical Modeling to Engage Students in Quantitative Analysis Bioskills

Quantitative analysis engages students in deep learning in introductory undergraduate biology courses.23 While data analytics, data visualization, and statistical techniques are competences needed to succeed in the workplace, in 2021, Wiley reported only around 20% of teachers and faculty incorporate these skills in classroom experiences.31 Data analysis and creation of visualizations are transdisciplinary skills which develop conceptualization and can be implemented in collaborative projects with digital technology.6, 10, 12

Python and R are readily available providing a useful avenue for all students to become included in the data analysis process of science. Both are used for analyzing genomic data and incorporate unique visualization features for analyzing large genomic datasets, which is increasingly becoming a critical skill.12, 16, 21, 23, 25 Anaconda, a free cloud-based platform, offers a version of Python that can be implemented in undergraduate courses for performing analyses. Trainees and faculty can use GitHub, a portal to document code and access code. Professional development applications are beginning to ask for GitHub credentials. These can be used to identify individual and team scientific contributions similarly to the way ORCiD is used to document updated projects. In a recent Discover Biomedicine webinar with MD Anderson Cancer Center/UT Health Houston Graduate School for Biomedical Sciences, having students document Github projects was seen as a welcomed attribution and means of validating scientific contributions. Online training is available for learning more about coding and the process of science. For example, the DART platform offers educational modules covering coding and visualizations. The National Research Mentor Network offers training in lab readiness and mentoring. Generative AI, also emerging, can support calculations and paper editing.1 Through this lens, the use of these tools supports substantiating calculations of experimental results for example, achieving a positive aspect of reproducibility.

I regularly integrate digital platforms into in-person lab courses. Graphpad Prism and Howard Hughes Medical Institutes’s (HHMI) Data Explorer both have cloud capabilities which students can use to plot results of data from lab exercises, perform statistical analysis, and create visualizations. These collaborative cloud-based platforms provide real-time updates and allow sharing. Graphpad Prism also offers in-platform learning with Prism Academy offering lessons ranging from performing a T-test and ANOVA to graphing data. Data Explorer is a free open platform for graphing data and performing statistical analysis, that can be applied in courses and labs to teach quantitative analysis.

Resource List 1. – Digital Platforms Offering Free Access for Inclusive Digital Bioskill Development


Interdisciplinary Nature of Science-Certifications

Process of Science

Modeling and Analysis

STEM Educators Must Connect to Continuously Improve Immersive Teaching and Learning

The undergraduate STEM Ecosystem is composed of educators, students, administrators, and funders. Competencies, science skills that have been mastered, develop with continued use.20 Bioskills curricula continuously evolves as undergraduate science educators connect in their respective fields to stay up-to-date on current techniques and theory critical in the STEM research and workplace ecosystem. Similarly, connecting within the sciences positively impacts undergraduate education.3 We can engage in microsci-communities, online communities that host webinars, conferences, and professional development opportunities on interdisciplinary topics, to communicate technology shifts and research advances affecting science and society. BioQuest/Qubes offers Faculty Mentoring Networks, where educators can meet to discuss new directions of curricula development. The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Communities of Interest are segmented into eight key areas that focus on current issues. In addition, AAAS Trellis is an online community for emerging theory. AAC&U’s Institute on Digital Equity offers strategies for digital equity. By staying connected we support continuous innovation in creating inclusive learning environments (Resource List 2).

Resource List 2. – Teaching and Learning Resources



Learning Analytics & Innovative Collaboration

Document Bioskills to Drive Recognition of Talent

Documentation of skills acquisition is essential to increase visibility and validate competency. Because many platforms provide free training and certifications as microcredentials (Resource List 1), a more equitable learning environment can now be created. I ask students to document Digital Bioskills learned and platforms used on their CVs, to reflect how they have been engaged in the process of science. Students for whom I have written recommendations who documented using PRISM, developing graphical abstracts, and analyzing data from repositories have been accepted into professional schools, summer programs, and postbac programs. Favorable recommendations, verification of personal statements and research statements can be aligned to micro-credentials documented online.

Documentation of micro-credentials as badges and certifications can be added to student’s LinkedIn and ORCiD profiles. Additionally, the Open Science Framework offers a platform to house project descriptions with DOIs. ORCiD generates IDs to connect one’s portfolio of productivity which is now seen as part of authorships in published papers. SciENcv and MyNCBI can automatically format Bioskills into NSF and National Institutes of Health (NIH) style biosketches, that are required by all applicants for federal fellowships and grants.

Next Steps in Using Digital Platforms as a Technological Gateway in creating Inclusive Undergraduate STEM Ecosystems

We must empower STEM talent to participate in knowledge creation by leveraging digital applications as a gateway to quickly build undergraduate students’ Digital Bioskills. Access to these readily available resources supports equity and inclusion in the STEM Ecosystem. A number of steps are involved. First, educators must connect with societies’ communication boards to determine what is innovative and digitally accessible and engage with digital platforms to align with the Digital Equity Act of 2021 which aims to fund digital inclusion projects and creation of digital equity plans. Next, educators should search for data repositories to draw from for in-class data analysis and have students seek answers with inclusive and accessible data analysis software. Then, students need to compose graphical abstracts to communicate findings with visualizations of processes and results and document Bioskills in preparation for summer research, professional school applications, and workforce readiness. These steps will empower STEM talent with immersive Digital Bioskills promoting preparation for strong participation in science and engineering opportunities to advance society needs.


Thanks to Stephanie August, Editor; Clyde Parillon, and the University of Houston Downtown College of Sciences and Technology for student engagement and learning.